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Interview

U.K. navy to station new vessels in Indo-Pacific for 5 years

Adm. Radakin says important to maintain freedom of navigation in Taiwan Strait

The HMS Queen Elizabeth leaves the U.S. naval base at Yokosuka, Japan on Sept. 8.   © Kyodo

LONDON -- The U.K. will station two new patrol vessels in the Indo-Pacific region for "at least the next five years" as part of plans by the U.S. and its allies to check China's naval expansion, Tony Radakin, a senior Royal Navy admiral, told Nikkei in a recent interview. 

Britain has been strengthening its presence in the region since leaving the European Union, and has already dispatched an aircraft carrier strike group led by the HMS Queen Elizabeth to the region. Concerns include the security of Taiwan.

Radakin said that the Taiwan Strait is clearly "part of the free and open Indo-Pacific."

His comments follow a joint statement from the Group of Seven leaders' summit in the U.K. in June that emphasized for the first time "the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait." He was speaking before the announcement on Wednesday that the U.S., Australia and the U.K. have unveiled a new Indo-Pacific security alliance.

It is "very clear that the Taiwan Strait is international waters," said Radakin. "It is a waterway that can be used by different nations."

He stressed that "this is part of the free and open Indo Pacific, and part of the rules-based order. I think it's been a very clear U.K. position, along with other nations that are signatories to [the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea]."

Radakin did not specifically mention China's moves against Taiwan, but he made clear that it is important to maintain freedom of navigation in the Taiwan Strait.

Earlier this month, the Queen Elizabeth carrier group made a port call at the U.S. military's Yokosuka base in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Radakin said that security cooperation between Japan and the U.K. will become even stronger, noting that the two countries are able to share facilities and equipment, and the armed forces of both countries use the highly advanced F-35 stealth fighter aircraft.

Observers believe two sides are considering closer collaboration, such as using each other's aircraft carriers for flight operations ahead of deployment of the F-35B in Japan.

Adm. Tony Radakin (Photo by Will Haigh)

In a July meeting with Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, British counterpart Ben Wallace outlined a plan to station two patrol vessels in the Indo-Pacific region separate from the carrier strike group. The two ships left the U.K. in early September.

Radakin said the additional ships would be in the region for "at least the next five years." He added, "They're smaller ships. We want them to complement the carrier group, which will be in the region for a relatively short period of time."

The ships will also help guard against illegal activities like maritime smuggling, according to the British government.

However, Britain has few military bases in the region and support from friendly nations is essential to make the deployment work. "Over 80% of the time they will be at sea ... [and will make] very short visits to countries in the region ... for logistics and fuel and supplies," said Radakin. "We would look to link with Japan as a friend and ally in the region in the same way as we would with Australia."

However, many still believe there are limits to Britain's military involvement in Asia given the need to respond to threats posed by neighboring Russia. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the U.K., Britain's military spending for fiscal 2020 was $61.5 billion. That is about 20% more than Japan but much less than the U.S. or China. In terms of personnel, British troops deployed in Asia and Oceania, excluding the Middle East, account for about 0.2% of the total strength of the British military.

Asked about this, Radakin replied, "This is not about basing or stationing troops." He noted that the carrier strike group had conducted a series of joint exercises with allies and friendly countries, adding that the U.K. involvement is a chance "to come together to discuss our trading relationship and to support the trade in the region and the free flow of trade."

The U.K. aims to strengthen relations with Asian countries by helping maintain maritime order, including freedom of navigation, in the Asia-Pacific region, while also benefiting from the region's economic growth. Its ongoing negotiations to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership are also a part of this effort.

Regarding future prospects for the Royal Navy, Radakin explained: "We want to have the ships that are operating, much more strongly with Oman, with India, using Diego Garcia and operating down the east coast of Africa."

The U.K.'s presence in the region is "the reality of the Indo Pacific becoming this phenomenal trading hub for the whole world. We're an outward-facing maritime Island trading nation, and therefore we're playing our part in the region with that as a backdrop."

Japan has welcomed the deployment of British patrol vessels, which will enable more joint responses and training among Japan, the U.K. and the U.S.

Tokyo also sees the deployment as a part of a broader international pushback to China's attempts to change the status quo.

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